The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The determined father who took Linda Brown by the hand and made history

In September 1950, a black father took his 7-year-old daughter by the hand and walked briskly for four blocks to an all-white school in their Topeka, Kan., neighborhood.

Sumner was the closest elementary school to their home, but Linda Brown was not allowed to attend because of the color of her skin.

The Rev. Oliver Leon Brown seemed fearless that September day, his daughter would recall more than 50 years later during a 2004 speech at the University of Michigan. She remembered her father’s hands were strong, those of a boxer. He was a heavyset man who had once been a Golden Gloves champion boxer, and this was a fight that he was determined to win.

Brown, an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor and a Santa Fe Railway worker, wanted his daughter to be allowed to enroll in the all-white elementary school — not because the all-white school was superior to the all-black elementary school she attended two miles away — but because it was a matter of principle.

“These were the circumstances which so angered black parents,” Brown told the audience at the University of Michigan. “My father pondered, ‘Why?’ Why should we have to tell our children that they cannot go to the school in their neighborhood because their skin is black?’ ”

Linda Brown, who later became Linda Brown Thompson and worked as a Head Start teacher, died this week in Topeka at the age of 75 (some reports said she was 76). She had lost her father decades earlier.

Linda Brown Thompson, girl at center of Brown v. Board of Education case, dies

Oliver Brown walked with a sense of urgency that day. He did not know that what he and his daughter were about to do would change history, leading to the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that would end decades of public school segregation.

Later she would remember trying to keep up with her dad. “Being very small, the steps seemed very large and tall, and we walked into this building,” she said during an interview in the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary.

Inside Sumner School, Oliver Brown told his little girl to take a seat in the foyer, while he went into the principal’s office to demand equality for his child.

Linda Brown could hear the voices inside the principal’s office getting louder.

“I knew something was causing my father to be very distressed,” she recalled later.

After awhile, her father stepped out of the principal’s office and again took her by hand, and they walked home.

Her father did not say what happened in that office, but she knew he was upset. “I could feel the tension in his hand, the tension from his body being generated to my hand, because he was very upset about something,” she recalled. She did not know what the principal had told her father. As a 7-year-old girl, her only hope was that she could go to the school the next year with her neighborhood friends who were white.

Archival photos show Linda Brown dressed in a wool coat buttoned to her neck, holding her lunch bag as she walks past the fence of Sumner.

“Black parents in Topeka felt the day of trying to enroll their children in the school nearest to their home was long overdue,” Linda Brown told the audience at the University of Michigan.

Her father would often arrive home from work to find his wife upset “because I had to take a walk just like she did many years before and catch a school bus and be bused some two miles across town” to the all-black Monroe Elementary school, Linda Brown recalled.

Some days, the walk to the bus was freezing, as she braced herself against the winter that swept across the Kansas prairie.

“I can still remember taking that bitter walk and the terrible cold that would cause my tears to freeze upon my face,” Brown told the audience at Michigan.

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Oliver Brown and other black parents who tried to enroll their children in all-white Topeka schools were met with flat-out refusals.

So, in February 1951, the local NAACP, led by attorney Charles S. Scott, filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal court.

That July, a three-judge federal court panel heard testimony from Oliver Brown and other black parents, who argued that segregated schools for black children were unequal.

The federal court ruled in favor of the Topeka Board of Education and its segregated schools.

In 1952, the case — Oliver L. Brown et. al v. Board of Education of Topeka — was appealed to the Supreme Court, which consolidated the case with other school desegregation cases from across the country. The court combined five cases from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., into a single case, which became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

The other cases included: Bolling v. Sharp, in D.C.; Briggs v. Elliot in South Carolina; Belton v. Gebhart (Bulah v. Gebhart) in Delaware; and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in Virginia.

But Oliver Brown became the lead plaintiff.

Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, led the arguments on behalf of black children denied access to all-white schools, challenging the “separate but equal” legal doctrine that had stood since 1896 with the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Thurgood Marshall asked an ex-Klan member to help him make Supreme Court history

In Kansas, the Browns followed the case from afar.

“We lived in the calm of the hurricane’s eye, gazing at the storm around us and wondering how it would all end,” she told the audience at the University of Michigan. “I don’t think my father ever got discouraged. At this time, I nor my parents knew how far-reaching the suit would become.”

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court announced its unanimous ruling, declaring “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the decision: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

Linda Brown was returning home from school in Topeka when she heard the news.

When she got home, Brown recalled, “There were tears in my father’s eyes.”

Turmoil ensued in school districts across the country, including “massive resistance” in Virginia, where the state government shut down public schools to prevent integration.

In Topeka, Linda Brown recalled, integration went smoothly in the fall of 1954.

“Neither I nor my family suffered the abuse and racial strife in so many parts of the country,” Brown recalled. “My father believed strongly God would move people to do the right thing.”

Her father was offered a position at an AME church in Springfield, Mo. And the family moved.

“Magazines began to do follow-ups on me and my family,” Linda Brown recalled. “It was during this time I inherited much of the recognition that would have gone to my father,” who died at the age of 42 in 1961 while they were living in Missouri.

“Little did he know years ago,” his daughter said, “when he stepped off the witness stand, he stepped into the pages of history.”

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